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Gear Shy Service Dogs: Five Steps to Confidence

Jun 09, 2024

Does your service dog or service dog in training back away from their harness? Display stress signs when vesting up? Or even run to the other side of the room when the heavier harness comes out?


You may have a gear shy service dog!

Many service dogs struggle with this, and it doesn’t necessarily mean anything bad has happened. It is, however, a sign that you need to work on gearing up for the comfort and welfare of your dog.

Here are the steps that I take to help gear shy dogs accept gear and raise their confidence

Re-think your gear choices.


Sometimes, simply taking a closer look at your gear and making small changes is enough to solve the struggle. One of the harnesses I tried with my lab, Quimby, was actually pinching and pulling her hair in the armpit area. Once I found and solved that, the harness was no problem for her. Check all the areas of your gear for matted hair (could be rubbing), tightness or looseness, or pinched areas of skin.

Similarly, if your dog wears harnesses easily but struggles with bulkier vests, finding a harness with patch locations or using leash wraps on a harness instead could be a great option for you! I’m a huge advocate for using gear that is comfortable for your dog, so if you can make a simple change for them to be more comfortable, I’m all for it!

Remember that gear and identification is not required for service dogs in the United States. It’s perfectly okay to work your dog in a simple collar or harness.

Decide whether you want to start fresh or not.

The desensitization process will need a period of time with no forcing into the gear in order to work on desensitizing slowly. This means holding off wearing a vest that bothers your dog or using a collar instead of the harness that scares them.

Because of this need, some handlers opt to buy a fresh set of gear that has no previous associations to it.

For example, with my pup, Quimby, she struggled with a vest that went over her head. Because of this, I bought a harness that attaches like a collar to use for desensitization since the whole picture would be new and different to start the process over with.

New gear is never required, but it is always an option to start fresh.

Desensitize to the sight, sound, and movement of the gear.

The first step of desensitizing is just working with the harness itself as a prop.

During this stage, your dog should NOT be touched by any part of the gear.

This part is all about fun, treats, and games.

Here are some easy things you can pair with treats during this stage:

    1. Sight of the harness

    2. Sound of the buckles buckling and unbuckling

    3. Sound of the tags or rings

    4. Movement of the harness

    5. Hand movements

    6. Pets and touching

    7. Moving things over the dog’s head from very high up

    8. Placing treats underneath objects to practice pushing

Remember that if your dog shows any signs of stress, you have gone too fast! You may need to take some steps back or reach out to a professional to help you slowly work on that specific movement.

Choose a start button behavior.

While desensitizing and creating a positive association to the gear in step three, you can work on a start button behavior to help you gear your service dog up more easily.

Start button behaviors allow the dog to tell you when they are ready for a care task to begin, or when they are feeling uncomfortable and need a break. It is a crucial concept for service dog handlers.

Here is a big list of start buttons that I’ve taught service dog handlers in the past to help with gearing up their pups cooperatively:

    1. Sit on a platform
    2. Paws up on a couch or chair
    3. Stand on a platform
    4. Nose touch to a stand
    5. Paws on blocks

When you are working on these behaviors, before you can work on gearing up with the start button, the behavior must be offered and not cued.

This means that your dog automatically does the behavior without being asked (and enthusiastically too!).


Otherwise, we can have conflict for the dog and easily coerce the dog with food.

For example, if your behavior is to sit on a platform, you want your dog to automatically sit on the platform as soon as you bring it into the area.

Slowly work on gearing up cooperatively.

Once you have desensitized the sight, sound, and movement of the gear, and your start button is offered, you can move to gearing up!

First, you’ll want to break down your goal into super tiny steps. 

For example, if you are working on a vest gearing up, the steps could be: 

  1. Pick up the vest from the table
  2. Move the vest to the front of your body
  3. Hold the vest out
  4. Hover the vest over your dog’s head
  5. Place the dogs’ nose through the chest strap
  6. Lightly set the vest on the dog’s back
  7. Put the vest on unbuckled
  8. Put the vest on and reach for the strap
  9. Put the vest on and grab the strap
  10. Put the vest on and grab both sides of the strap
  11. Put the vest on and buckle the strap
  12. Complete!

These small steps will be your training progression with your start button. Here is the flow I like to use when working on these small steps:

  1. Wait for your dog to do the start button behavior
  2. Choose the step you are on above
  3. If the dog stays on the start button, reward in place, then release with a tossed treat and repeat
  4. If the dog moves off of the start button, toss a reward away anyway, and make the next repetition much easier (yes the dog gets rewarded whether they say no or not).
  5. Repeat until you are able to get to the very last step without your dog breaking the start button behavior.

See the instagram post below to watch me work on this with my lab, Quimby, and her vest:


With the help of these stages, your dog should be easily gearing up in no time! Your job is to practice and listen to your dog. Go at their pace, and try not to rush things. We know it’s hard!

Happy training!

PS If you’d like to work on this with one-on-one guidance with me, click here to join the pack. Cooperative care is one of my main areas of focus.

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